GQ Australia, June 2022
Whether you like Elvis or not, Memphis is your next favourite American city.
Memphis is the perennial underdog. From the outside looking in, it shouldn’t have much to offer. Built on cotton farming and now airmail—FedEx has its global headquarters in the city and is the largest employer—it’s a city with humble roots, but both culturally and historically, it’s always managed to punch well above its weight.
And we’re not just talking about Elvis. Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, B. B. King, Roy Orbison, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin—all of these icons were either born in Memphis or kickstarted their careers there. And whether it’s Memphis that inspires the music—the soul—or the music inspires Memphis, it doesn’t matter—but there are few places I’ve been where the spirit of a city is so ever-present.
In restaurants, you’re sitting where Elvis sat. On the tram—which are incidentally Melbourne trams—you might end up in the same cars as soul stars and Memphis residents like Carla Thomas or Boo Mitchell. And, on a more tragic yet important note, on the streets, you are walking where Martin Luther King Jr. walked his final steps.
Geographically, Memphis is sprawling and diverse. From the bustling downtown area with famous Beale Street running through the heart to the trendy, up-and-coming Midtown and Overton Square areas, and the historic Soulsville area with the best food in town, there is way more to Memphis than first meets the eye.
But, of course, the elephant in Memphis’ room is the King himself, Elvis Presley. Nowhere else in the world is a single musician’s presence so deeply ingrained in the fabric of a city. In nearby Tupelo, Mississippi you can see the house he was born in, his first church, the hardware store where he bought his guitar and, his favourite drive-in—complete with cheeseburgers for $2.50.
The Arrive Hotel on South Main.
From our two bases at the luxurious Hyatt Centric on Beale Street and the comforting, cool and stylish boutique Arrive Hotel on South Main, you can wander to the booth where Elvis used to eat at the Arcade Diner before jetting over to Sun Studios to hear the story of how Elvis got his big break and see the studio where Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis—whose cigarette burns you can still see on the piano—cut their teeth.
At Lansky Bros. you can shop where the King used to buy his clothes and hear stories from the owner, Hal J. Lansky, about what he was like back in the day. Heck, you can even eat at a hair salon-come-restaurant where Elvis’ wife Priscilla used to get her hair done. And all of that is before you even get to Graceland—the mecca and Disneyland for Elvis fans everywhere.
When you drive through the hallowed gates of Elvis’ iconic residence, you can feel the essence of his down-to-earth, yet simultaneously extravagant personality as you come up the hill. Green lawns lead up to the white mansion, which is admittedly, and almost thankfully, smaller than expected. It’s like a home of a successful local business owner rather than one of the biggest stars of a century. That is until you walk inside.
As extravagant as it gets.
White carpets. White sofas. A white piano. Peacock-embossed stain-glass windows. A portrait of Elvis next to a gilded staircase. And then there’s the Jungle room. A rocky fountain sits at one end, green grassy carpet lines the floor and ceiling, ferns hang all around, and the chairs, hideous wood carvings meet white and brown fur—it’s easy to imagine Elvis playing the charismatic host at his most extravagant, enigmatic self in here.
The famed Jungle room.
His presence is felt all throughout the building—from the blue and yellow TV room where he used to watch his beloved football to the shooting target in the back shed that he used to aim at with friends from the balcony—but it’s particularly strong at his indoor squash court. It’s in this big shed out the back that Elvis spent some of his final hours, playing on the piano next to the court and a friendly game of squash with some friends. The piano is still there and you can practically see him sitting at it crooning out a tune for his small audience.
The rest of Graceland—across the highway in a converted parking lot and shopping centre—is a lot less spiritual. Exhibitions are housed in a large building reminiscent of the country’s stip malls, and gift shops specific to each exhibit further confirm the comparison. Some exhibitions are amazing, Elvis’ display of cars and his iconic jumpsuits for example, but as a whole, the magic is left across the road.
Luckily, the gift shops are one of the few soulless places in the city. On the complete other end of the spectrum, Soulsville—the local name for the neighbourhoods in South Memphis—ooze with genuine character. The Four Way Soul Food Restaurant, a favourite of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson when they were in town, is as pure of a soul food experience as you can get. Fried Catfish shares the menu with Boiled Okra, Mac & Cheese and Fried Green Tomatoes. If you’re lucky, as we were, you might bump into some of the staff from the Stax Music Academy down the road.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music—a wonderland for fans of soul.
The Academy is an extension of the famed Stax Records—the South’s answer to Motown. It’s also next to the Stax Museum, built on the former grounds of the studio which was abandoned in 1975, and a testament to artists from the label like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, The Staple Singers, and even Al Green, although he recorded at Hi Records in Memphis. As you can see, everywhere you turn in Memphis you are warmly greeted by the musical ghosts of its past—and we haven’t even talked about the Blues.
The electric Beale Street, Home of the Blues.
Known as the Home of the Blues, Memphis’ blue beating heart is Beale Street. The bustling hub with its neon lights and live music is a must experience in the city. Parts of the street are closed to cars, beers are carried freely and blues music from some of the best musicians you’ll hear drifts out from every venue.
It’s a taste of the energy that the street famously had as the centre of African-American commerce and the musical universe up until the 1960s. A dinner at Central BBQ for some hot wings or Rendezvous for some of the best BBQ in town—although this topic is hotly debated in the BBQ-crazy city—followed by a wander down Beale Street, in and out of bars, could easily be considered a perfect evening by music lovers.
The Lorraine Motel's exterior hasn't changed since 1968, but inside, it now houses the National Civil Rights Museum.
Like Memphis as a whole, Beale Street is a fighter. Beale Street saw the sanitation strikes that brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968, and it’s just half a mile from the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated. That site is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum, an extension of the Smithsonian museum, and an incredible monument to the Civil Rights Movement. It is a must-visit for anyone in Memphis.
After MLK’s assassination just a few streets away in 1968, and some disastrous city planning, many of the black-owned businesses on the street left, and so did the music. But, since being formally recognised by Congress as the ‘Home of the Blues’, and with a concerted effort by the city, the street is back to life as the centre of Memphis’ musical soul.
Eight and Sand inside Memphis' Central Station.
Memphis doesn't just have history though. Across the city, at bars like Eight and Sand Downtown and Tiger and Peacock on the roof of the Memphian in Overton Square or restaurants like Catherine and Mary's or SOB's, people are pushing the culture, gastronomy and vibrancy of Memphis forward all the time.
It's still a music town though—whether it's the hip-hop of Yo Gotti or Pooh Shiesty or the soul of Seventh Avenue, music runs through the veins of the city. And for music lovers, there's as much reason to visit Memphis as there is New Orleans, Nashville or New York City.
Next time you're in the U.S.A., whether you're a diehard Elvis fan (which will be likely after you see Baz Luhrmann's new biopic about the King, out 23 June), or not, Memphis is your next great travel destination.
Find out more about Memphis and Elvis at Memphis Travel.
Delta flies to Memphis from around $2000 return via LAX (based on fares in September 2022)